We must insist on ethical stem cell research Print
Thursday, Sep. 25, 2008 -- 5:30 AM

As the 2008 World Stem Cell Summit was scheduled to meet in Madison this week, new questions were raised about whether consent to use embryos left over from fertility clinics in stem-cell research was ever properly obtained.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported September 22 that Robert Streiffer, a professor of bioethics and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, authored a study published in the May-June issue of the Hastings Center Report, a bioethics journal. Through a Freedom of Information request to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Streiffer made a request for the consent forms for the 21 stem-cell lines approved by President George W. Bush.

Editor's View
Mary C. Uhler
Consent not obtained properly

Streiffer's report said three of the stem-cell lines most in question from BresaGen of Athens, Ga., were derived from embryos from donors who signed a standard consent form for fertility treatment. The form they signed contained only one vague reference to research.

The consent form for two other stem-cell lines from Cellartis of Sweden also were problematic. The consent form said the embryonic cells would be destroyed, when in fact they were sent to many researchers for study.

Streiffer himself is a member of the UW-Madison's Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee. One might think that this news about proper consent from donors might make him question the use of these stem-cell lines. But while he does seem to be questioning their use, saying, "There is an ethical cost to restricting federal funding to that first wave of stem-cell lines," his solution seems to be to expand the use of embryonic stem cells to newer lines with a more thorough consent process.

Parents' right to give consent

When Streiffer and others discuss consent, they are talking about the consent of the parents of the embryos. Most of these parents are people who were trying desperately to have children. They created more embryos than were needed for implantation, so the "spare" embryos were left with the fertility clinics. These are the embryos which are being destroyed in the name of scientific progress.

I wonder what would happen if scientists decided they wanted or needed to experiment on babies already born. Would these parents be willing to "donate" their babies to science if it meant killing their babies?

We know that human life begins with conception. Everything necessary for the development of the baby is right there at the earliest stage of life. All that is needed is for the embryo to grow and develop in time.

That little embryo obviously cannot and did not give consent to be killed for science. The question is whether anyone has that right -- even the embryo's parents. It's the same ethical, moral question involved in the abortion debate.

First principle: do no harm

"Do no harm" has been the guiding principle of science and medicine for many centuries. Yet in recent years, it seems that guiding principle has changed to "the end justifies the means."

We know that embryonic stem cells cause problems in tumor formation and immune rejection. So-called adult stem cells -- from more mature tissue -- can be obtained ethically and have already been used to treat many medical conditions.

"On purely practical grounds, embryonic stem cell research is not the most effective use of research money and does not offer the greatest hope to patients," says Maureen L. Condic, a researcher and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

"On a more fundamental level," she adds, "we must not be so blinded by our concern for patients and families that we ignore the moral cost of scientific research. Medical stem cell research must operate within the constraints of ethical principles, with the first principle being do no harm."

Writing an article for this year's Respect Life program for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Condic says that research on human embryonic stem cells "involves the intentional destruction of human life at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. Regardless of any potential benefit this research may offer, as citizens and as Christians, we must ask ourselves: Can medical cures justify the price of destroying human life?"

Our answer should be "no." The human embryos involved in research have not given their consent. And perhaps many of their parents would not have given consent if they knew what was really happening.

We must insist that scientists "do no harm" and commit themselves to ethical stem cell research. And we must support public policies that protect human life at every stage.